Nuala Moore from Dingle, Ireland is renowned as an ice swimmer and educational speaker, but one of her areas of expertise and long experience is shark behavior.
Trained and certified as a Staff Instructor by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, her love and appreciation of sharks was one outcome of her attraction to extreme adventures. “When I became an instructor in 1994, I continued with my education including instructors in so many areas including Deep diving, Rescue, Mixed gases, basically anything that challenges the body. But I truly love the way that scuba has best practices and limits imposed in teaching.
As a diving instructor, she studied for years about shark behavior and how her knowledge can applied to ocean swimming.
“Sharks are a very special area for me and in 2003 I worked with Professor Vic Peddemors of South Africa as part of a study group completing courses in shark behavior inclduing Great White Sharks.
The science group was monitoring the shark’s behavior to our presence. For six weeks we were in the water working with the Big 5 including tiger and Great White.*
She described the groundbreaking work she did with Professor Peddemors in South Africa. “When the opportunity arrived to work with Professor Peddemors, I jumped at it with some friends of mine. Instead of looking into caves and under rocks, we decided to go directly to the source. PADI Diving offered a course to study the behavioral aspects of sharks. We were part of a study conducted by the scientists at Durban University and Natal Sharks Board where they gathered evidence from our shark encounters over a period of weeks.
The scientists accompanied us on all dives 2-3 times a day to obtain this clinical data in locations of risk encounters. I loved it, including a time when I saw a seal being attacked by a Great White Shark in Seal Island in False Bay. I was also able to swim close to and gather tagging data from a tiger shark. Our group including 12 divers from Brazil, the Netherlands and Ireland; all very experienced divers. We had the most incredible experience.
Working with Professor Peddemors was an honor, but having him as our qualifying instructor and also mentor for those weeks was priceless.”
Moore discussed her experiences with the sharks:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: But how can you not panic in these situations?
Nuala Moore: Panic is a normal response to any danger. It is just the body’s way of responding, but it does more to alert the shark that there is anxiety and potentially something present. Sharks monitor behavior like any animal.
Breathing and calm is vital. It’s not easy, but it is vital to limit the alert if you see the shark and you may not be on their radar. You stop for a moment to assess the scene. Determine if the shark is a dangerous threat or just passing by.
Stop and try to remain motionless for a few moments. Have a signal for your crew, stay calm and keep your face in the water. This will bring down your breathing. Panic is not something that helps any situation; in fact, it wastes time.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Is it possible to be ready and prepared for a shark attack?
Nuala Moore: Absolutely. You prepare with a plan for exit and signals and eventualities including an attack. Is our team prepared?
The best thing to do is to understand if a shark is likely to be present or pass during your swim. Determine a signal for your crew which limits the movements of the water. We use a hand signal of the fin on our heads which indicates a shark present. A clenched fist indicates danger and an OK signal is vital to understand. I would limit noise, engines, paddles and flashes of cameras – all worsen the situation.
Be educated as to what the danger signs of shark behavior are. Remember that if you are going to swim a channel and sharks are present, then that is an expectation. Seeing them is what you prepare for. When we went to the Bering Strait, I got all the best practices regarding what was present. It is responsible.
Our objective in the shark study was to lie there and allow the sharks to meander about.
One time when we were lying on the bottom on the sand at Shark Alley, Natal during one of our dives, a large 2.2m female shark came alongside and stopped probably 20 inches from my face. I remember thinking, ‘Just bring down your breathing, stay calm. It was a really difficult experience, but I was in it and I needed to do the best practice.
The female just kept staring at me. Her eye kept moving over and back and she stopped mid-water perpendicular to my body with her mouth ajar.
In a flash, she swung her mouth and caught a small fish and then just stayed in the same position for about 3 minutes. The professors were just above us and I kept trying to catch Professor Vic’s eye. They were writing and taking notes.
I wondered in my head if I was blocking her path so I tried to shimmy sideways and held the hand of the diver beside me just as a small security. I knew I had to stay calm. There were about 10 other smaller sharks about, but this female was very much interested in me.
Once we were back in the classroom, I wanted to talk about the experience. I remember the conversation verbatim because it was a life-changing lesson.
Moore: Did you see the shark stopping beside me?
Professor Peddemors: Yes She was beautiful and a new shark to our area. [We also documented spot patterns to determine residents, semi-residents or visitors. They could tell she was a visitor.]
Moore: Did you see how she was very aggressive when she stopped and stared at me?
Professor Peddemors: There was nothing aggressive in her behavior, she acted normally.
Moore: Did you see the way she looked at me?
Professor Peddemors: That is the way she looks, she looks menacing, but that is how she looks. Her behavior was calm. She was not in a hurry, that is what she does.
Moore: I thought she was aggressive.
Professor Peddemors: You can’t lead your opinions by your fears. You have to lead your opinion by the facts. She was not aggressive at all. Her behavior was very relaxed.
I was shocked. I felt so empowered for the first time. I realized I was afraid the shark was what it was…a shark. She was not aggressive. I was afraid. The follow day I swam alongside a tiger shark because Professor Peddemors indicated that it was safe to do so. Fear is an emotion.
If you have a plan and then execute your plan that is all you can do. But don’t think that each shark sighting is a threat.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you or would you do in a shark encounter or shark attack?
Nuala Moore: A shark encounter can be peaceful and act according to the situation. breathe calm and try to not excite or agitate the situation. Be able to understand the response and know your plan. Sharks monitor the excitement of the water. Most encounters will pass and wait.
A shark attack is a different.
Know that if the shark attacks, there is the nose area. The sharks have sensory organs called the Ampullae of Lorenzini around their snouts. These are filled with gelatinous substance filled their pores.
So if you hit them in the snout, it can and will stun them.
At the end of the day, it is unlikely that you can prevent an attack if the shark is determined to bite. But obviously if it is within your ability to get out of the water, do if it is possible to grab the paddle of the boat, boat hook, etc. Be prepared if you have a plan. But other than that, have a team who are prepared if it is your wish to stay in the water during sharks which appear aggressive.
What you can’t do is control the responses of the shark, but with education and understanding you can create a safer environment for yourself to swim happier.
Remember that if you swim in channels where sharks are present, then have a plan regardless of whether you use it or not. Make sure your team is briefed and remember that not all encounters are dangerous.
No matter what swim or dive is, you have to prepare for the challenge and if that includes sharks, then have a plan.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What other advice do you have?
Nuala Moore: Shark sightings are very common and it is very important to understand and also be aware that a sighting of a shark does not indicate danger. Many of the channels join very well-known shark viewing dives so it is important that swimmers make themselves aware with their teams, of the sharks that they are likely to encounter, or even those sharks known to visit the area.
Channels are deep, fast running water that offer ‘highways’ or fast water for sharks to travel through. This gives them speed. In diving, we would cross these underwater highways between rocks as if they were ‘motorways’ and look up and down. Sharks tend to move quickly here. I have dived with many of the high-risk sharks and we always have to respect our vulnerable presence.
I have dived and worked in diving in many areas including the Seychelles, South Africa, Galapagos, Caribbean, Red Sea, the Mediterranean always with sharks. I have only two times witnessed what I would think to be situations which resulted in our having to take action.
In Hawaii, the waters host pretty much all of the Big 5 Sharks; some are resident sharks and some are visitors.
New Zealand has some of the best healthy waters, but again here a lot of the shark activity is seasonal; November through March when water temperature plays a part.
Catalina and California is hugely popular for traveling sharks and some residents so this is a risk area.
The UK and Ireland do not offer any challenges in the shark world. There are now some diving and fishing with the blue shark and short fin mako shark, but nothing which should concern swimmers per se.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is the responsibility of swimmers?
Nuala Moore: Whatever body of water you are swimming in, be responsible and create a shark plan.
Sharks are not familiar with our presence. It’s not like they can say ‘this a swimmer’ and they cannot identify our presence. However, the large vessels and the splashing can all attract. They respond the same way that requires them to be initially curious. Swimmer can and does attract interest.
It is imperative to know if sharks are going to be present. If you are a swimmer who may not wish to swim in this risk situation, you can make an informed decision with the escort pilot and observer in advance. One thing I remember was the use of flashes underwater in cameras was advised against.
Swimmers can contact the boat owners and escort pilots and discuss the potential risks. They can ask questions like Is there shark diving in the area? Is there chumming in the area by a lot of dive operators? Is your escort team informed about the potential of encountering sharks and what their plan is to divert?
Swimmers should develop a signal system and discuss the outcome of an attack. Also, swimmers should have a plan of what to do in the event of a swimmer staying in or coming out of the water. A clenched fist with an outstretched hand is a danger sign in the water. A single hand creating an circle with the fingers touching the head is an accepted OK signal or 2 hands joined above the head. A single swipe of the hand across the neck is an indication that you want out.
Swimmers should be capable of communicating with your team in signals so shouting is not necessary and be familiar with your exit plan.
Also be familiar with the shark behavior and remember, Never underestimate the shark and never over-estimate your ability or knowledge.
Jacques Cousteau once said, “The only predictable thing about a shark is that is unpredictable.” In my opinion, human error and judgement will nearly always create the greatest risks both for the swimmer and with the shark. You determine your own set of risks.
* The Sharks Big 5 are known as the mako shark, hammerhead shark, tiger shark, great white shark and whale shark in size and power. The Marine Big 5 in South Africa are sharks, whales, penguins, dolphins and seals which can change in places like Galapagos where manta rays are included in lieu of others as a marine marketing tool.
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